Travel

J’adore Paris.

paris is always a good idea

Paris, je t’aime…

I’ve never been one to dream about Paris or have ever felt the need to go. But as soon as I stepped foot into this magical city, I was hooked.

After having a very difficult time booking trains from Amsterdamn into Paris, we finally arrived.. with absolutely no idea where we were going to stay. We bumped into a fellow Canuck at the train station who suggested a hostel near Monte Martre. Rach and I hopped on the metro (after almost being scammed) and made our way there only to find out that of course they were completely booked up. A little discouraged, we plopped ourselves right outside that hostel to “borrow” their wifi so we could find some kind of shelter before the sun set. Turns out, this hostel being booked up was the luckiest thing to happen to us in Europe. Because it was booked up, we ended up going to St. Christophers and meeting our all time favourite travellers.

The Hostel.

I would HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend St. Christopher’s if you’re looking for a social hostel where you can easily meet people. They have a great bar that fills up at night time with tons of friendly travelers. We had managed to get to the hostel after dinner and immediately met our new friend Alex who we instantly hit it off with over some cheap and delicious Parisian wine.

The bedrooms were clean and have cages underneath the bed for you to lock up your stuff. Careful though.. the hydrolics on ours were broken and out of no where, they can come slamming down at a ridiculous force. I laughed real hard when it happened to Rachel because with her clumsy nature, it was such a typical thing to have happen. But jokes on me because the next day, I had a nice bump on my head as evidence to show how easy it was to get knocked out by one. They also have paid lockers in their lobby so you can leave your bag there when you check out if you don’t plan on catching a train/plane until later in the day.

I opted to just hand wash my clothes in the sink and hang them in the hostel. If you’re much classier than I am and would like to not have your undies hanging out all over the place, there is a laundromat just a couple blocks down.

One of the things that I loved was how casual they were about bringing your own drinks and sitting at their bar. We would always just walk down the street to a convenience store, pick up a cheap bottle of delicious wine and have the bartender open it for us.

The food.

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Crepes, cheese, pastries, bread, and wine were the only things that went in my little belly. For a girl that doesn’t typically eat bread, I couldn’t get enough of it. The smells of freshly baked pastries as you walked by the shoppes were just intoxicating. If you want to stick close to the hostel, I’d recommend grabbing a bottle of wine from the nearby convenience store, some glasses and sit out on the canal and enjoy the fresh air.

There is a little crepe shop right by the hostel near Crimee station that is so fantastic. Most of the restaurants just north east of the hostel are catered to locals so the staff very rarely speak English. It was definitely at these restaurants that we had the most phenomenal meals though.

The sites

Walking tours. There are a few free walking tours in Paris. I can’t remember the one we went on exactly but it started at our hostel. These tours are a great way to meet other travellers and see many of the top sites in Paris. That’s where we met our super group, Jeff, Katie, Liam, and Alex who definitely made our Paris trip memorable.

eiffle tower

The Eiffle Tower. It was like being a movie. We opted to climb the stairs instead of waiting in the seriously long line to use the elevator lift. My fear of heights was a serious hindrance during the climb as you are very aware of your surroundings and how high you are.

IMG_8575 copyNotre dame. So nice! This was the first of the churches that we visited and it was definitely in the top of the list. We got there bright and early after our pub crawl because we heard they had free English tours. Unless you are very very very passionate about history and religion… I WOULD NOT GO ON THAT TOUR! Our super group was so excited when the tour started.. our tour guide started out by giving a very detailed description of this one area of the outside of the building… and 20 mins later when the lady was still describing the same area, I knew if I stayed for another minute, I’d fall asleep while standing. I glanced around and saw the pain in my other friend’s faces. Jeff caught my eye and without a word, we not so discretely slipped away to find some other adventures, abandoning our poor friends to this torture. I later found out that they only lasted another 30 minutes before they too could not take it anymore.

IMG_8682 copyThe Louvre. While our other friends stayed at the Notre Dame tour, Jeff and I made our way to the Louvre. We must have the best timing because there was absolutely no line to get in. I hate to admit it but I just don’t appreciate art as much as I should. Especially being a photographer. I’m not a huge fan of museums and definitely have the mentality that if you’ve seen one naked statue.. you’ve seen them all. Don’t hate me. Luckily for me, Jeff had a very similar mentality so we grabbed one of the booklets from the front that listed all the popular pieces and decided to hit up all the “top” exhibits in as little time as possible. To spice things up a bit, he suggested we play a game where we give the paintings new names. If there’s one thing I’m terrible at, it’s being creative on the spot. Jeff who is so quick came up with names that they had me in tears from laughing. I on the other hand had the imagination of a rock and felt serious anxiety every time it was my turn to name anything. All and all, one of the best museum visits of my life.

Monte Martre. LOVE. This is the Paris that you see in the movies. We grabbed some baguettes and laid on the grassy hill and took in the sun. Note: there were a bunch of signs all over the grass that said something in French that I didn’t understand.. but I suspect it said something about staying off the grass…

Jeff Tosoian in Monte Martre

 

Parc des Buttes Chaumont – GO TO THIS PARK! Preferably early in the morning. It was so beautiful and relaxing with the mist coming off of the lake, runners jogging past, and artists with their paints and canvasses. It was absolutely the perfect place to write in your journal. It may have been one of my favourite locations in all of Paris.

I can’t say enough amazing things about Paris. The food, the friends and the sights made this city unforgettable.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

I don't know where I'm going, but I promise you it won't be boring

After what felt like an eternity, we finally arrived in Amsterdam. After being lost for 3 hours, and not being able to get trains out of Amsterdam, I learned how valuable it was to just be flexible and just go with it.

Hostel

Rach and I booked a room at the StayOkay hostel. This cute hostel is a little far from the action so be ready to take public transit every day. Though I enjoyed my stay there, I prefer a more social hostel.

Pros:

  • Pretty clean. They have fresh packaged linens in sealed bags, so you know it’s clean.
  • We stayed in a 6 bed dorm and had our own private bathroom. Definite score. 
  • Front desk staff was incredibly friendly and helpful.
  • free breakfast that was actually really good!
  • Good wifi signal

Cons:

  • A little far from downtown, but there are little flea markets and farmer’s markets in the area which was nice
  • No lockers in the bedroom. You could rent lockers in the lobby for a fee. 

Highlights and tips

Surprisingly, many of the locals don’t participate in legal recreational drugs. I got the impression that many viewed it in the same way that I view cigarettes. When Rach and I asked about it, the friendly front desk guy told us, “Just don’t do it. You will get sick and think that you are going to die.” And then he proceeded to call his coworker on his walkie talkie to get his opinion.. and his coworker also told us that we just shouldn’t do it.

 

This was where we went on our first European pub crawl. Rach and I were walking around looking for a quiet café to have a drink and a bite to eat when we walked by a promoter trying to get people to join their pub crawl. Completely exhausted and hungry, we looked at each other… both in comfy clothes, my hair was greasy from not showering for 3 days.. and thought..  YOLO! Still starving, we knew we had to get some food real quick or else the night would probably end in some disasterious vomiting. We looked around and saw a burger king right beside the bar, ran in and inhaled what must have been 10 bajillion calories. Neither one of us could have predicted the amount of dancing, alcohol, and random people that were in store for us that night. Our night consisted of impressions of the queen, pictures for wanted posters, sheep, being separated, rides on the bike of a random bike, and mr. clean. All stories that have to unfortunately stay in Amsterdam.

sheepNgoc Nguyen in Amsterdam

 

Those red paths that look like welcoming walking paths… DO NOT WALK ON THE RED PATHS! They’re meant for bikes… and those bicyclists whizz by you real fast and are not happy if you are in their way.

 

The Heineken tour was surprisingly fun. Though we probably shouldn’t have opted for this tour over the Anne Frank house… I guess that has to go on our list for next time..

 

The boat tours around the canals are a great way to get a quick tour of the whole city. You can bring on snacks and just hang out in the sun on a boat.. who doesn’t love that?

Ngoc Nguyen in Amsterdam eating fries

A lot of the younger locals speak English so it was fairly easy to communicate.

You will get lost. The streets and canals are confusing. In an attempt to go to this one restaurant that Rachel just had to try.. we ended up getting lost for 3 hours, only to end up starving and eating at a random mexican restaurant. I felt so bad for the random guy that decided to come with us.. he was not so easy going and definitely not pleased about being lost with absolutely no real end in sight.

If you do get lost, the locals are incredibly friendly. As soon as we got into Amsterdam and pulled out a map, we had two people stop and try to help us find our way.

Febo. Brilliant. It’s pretty much fast food from a vending machine. After 6 pubs, endless vodka and beer, nothing looked better than croquettes behind that little glass window.

If you are using the Eurail pass and want to go to Paris after Amsterdam, you should probably book your train in advance. We learned that you actually need a reserved seat for that train and it definitely wasn’t easy to get one. You have to pay an additional fee on top of your pass and when booking last minute, you have to be pretty flexible on your time lines. Most trains stop in Brussels so if you time it right, you can make a quick stop there for some chocolate and lunch.

Compared to the rest of my Europe trip, I found the locals in Amsterdam were by far the friendliest. Definitely on my list of places to visit again.

The starting point. London, England

It’s been a year since my Europe adventure and I figured it was time to start putting together this scrap book that I’ve been putting off for too long. In the process, I thought I’d share some tips, memories, thoughts, and of course, photos of the trip that gave me the incurable travel bug.  

I landed in Heathrow full of jittery nerves. An old collegue had graciously offered to let me crash at his place but he wasn’t available until late in the evening so I grabbed a map and figured out what metro line I needed to take to get into the centre of the action. Coming from Toronto with only 2 subway lines, looking the underground lines were a little over whelming at first. I picked up an oyster card and made my way to Piccadilly circus. It only took walking around for an hour before I realized that I had to do something with the giant backback that I was carrying. I popped into a museum and checked in my backpack, hoping that it would be ok for a few hours. I’m not sure if maybe people don’t leave their giant backpacks there often, or maybe I have a very distinct face, but the guys at the counter recognized me immediately when I came back hours later to pick it up.

My first 5 days in Europe was quite the start to my adventure. Here are some highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from London.

  1. London is an easy place to start if you’re nervous about travelling on your own. Everyone speaks English so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier as you try to figure out how to get from point a to point b. The metro system is very easy to use and they have some great apps that help you map out the most efficient route (Just search the “London underground tube map” in the app store). I was there for 5 days so I opted to get the oyster card for reduced fares.
  2. Check the temperature before going. I don’t know why I assumed it would be warm there. The nights were 0 degrees and my friends flat was so cold that I had to sleep with hot water bottles as to not freeze to death.
  3. Pubs close early and stop serving food really early. I was hungry so many nights and I typically like to grab some food while at a pub drinking.. but turns out many of them stop serving food quite early so plan on having a snack before going out.
  4. I do not fare well with jet leg. I slept in until 11 almost every day for 4 days…and then wouldn’t be able to get to sleep until 5am. FORCE yourself to wake up early so that you’re exhausted and fall asleep that night. I wasted many mornings sleeping in.
  5. Camden market is a great place to get little trinkets and souvenirs for people. Though if London is your first stop, remember that whatever you buy here, you will have to lug with you throughout the rest of your trip.
  6. The overnight bus to Amsterdam is terrible. Unless you’re super fond of bus rides, avoid taking this bus! If you book your train in advance, you can get a really decent fare from London to Paris or Amsterdam. Since I left this all to the last minute the train was crazy expensive so I had to resort to the longest bus ride of my life. One of my besties, Rachel, met up with me in London on my last day there and we decided to head to Amsterdam next. Maybe we’re just incredibly unlucky when we’re together, but this ride…so it’s only 13 hours.. but on a bumpy bus that was cold and was full to the max… makes 13 hours feel like forever.We sat in the back row on either end of these two bigger men. It was freezing and the bus was really rocky. As we started to fall asleep, we were woken up to go through customs. And then woken up again to go on the ferry. This ferry… seemed so peaceful. We found this nice quiet bench and laid down and stretch our legs out… and it seemed like bliss.. for 30 seconds until the whole floor filled with more french students than I have ever seen in my life. And they were LOUD! It felt like I was inside of a vacuum. But somehow.. we managed to fall asleep on this ferry.. only to be woken up when one little french student got shoved by another and fell into me. All of a sudden, I’m in the middle of the cat fight with all these French students yelling out things that I don’t understand. And then after all that, we get off the ferry, to get back on our bus to drive for a few more hours. The whole experience was surreal and left me seriously sleep deprived.
  7. The brits make some seriously good pot pie.
  8. There is a lot of free wifi available everywhere so you can be fairly connected if you want to be.

Lessons Learned: The Lone Traveller

travel as often as you canA year ago, with one month off between my work contracts, I knew I needed to finally take my European adventure. Completely clueless about backpacking, hostels, and just travelling in general, I ignored my jittery nerves and decided that I was just going to jump in head first. So I booked a flight landing in London and flying out of Rome. And pretty much nothing else in the middle. I’m completely a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, do whatever feels right, and make decisions as I go along type of person in my personal life, so I opted not to book hostels, trains or make any concrete plans on what city I was going to be in, or what route I was going to take.

Thinking back on how unprepared I was for my European backpacking trip, I wanted to share some benefits to travelling alone, and tips that I have learned along the way.

  1. Do whatever you want on your schedule. The great thing about not travelling with a specific person is that you won’t feel obligated to join anyone if they are going to a museum, restaurant, etc that you don’t feel like going to. You have the opportunity to set your own schedule without considering anyone else.
  2. Alone but never lonely. It is incredibly easy to make travel friends. So many people are backpacking through Europe and taking similar routes so it’s really easy to make some new friends. The great thing about not having a set agenda was that I was flexible enough to spend an extra day in a city if I found people I really liked, or even changed my route so I could see another city with them. A few places that were great for meeting people were hostels (particularly the hostel bars), walking tours and pub crawls. 
  3. Hostels are awesome. Use hostelworld to find hostels in the area and make sure you read the ratings. I stuck to staying in places with a minimum of 80% and had nothing but amazing experiences. If you are planning your trip in advance, consider using airBnB to stay at a local’s house. I used airbnb for a Montreal trip and had an AMAZING experience.
  4. My travel pillow saved my neck. The inflatable pillows from MEC was the best for long bus rides and train rides. They are lightly stuffed and are way more comfortable than the usual inflatable pillow, plus they are super easy to pack.
  5. A smartphone to use wifi is essential for on-the-fly travelers. Since I didn’t have a set schedule for what country I wanted to go to and when, I often had to book hostels the day of. You can usually find wifi in Mcdonalds, or in hotel/hostel lobbies. If you’re planning on stopping in Venice, or Cinque Terre, there is very limited wifi so I’d recommend booking a place before getting into the city. I also downloaded some calling apps on my smart phone that let me call landlines for free over wifi. Those phone calls helped my mom keep her sanity. I listed a few apps that I used every day during my trip at the bottom of this post. That being said, it’s really freeing to just turn off your phone. So shut it off and just go explore.
  6. It’s worth paying for a really great meal in every city. Look up reviews (I used trip advisor) and try going to one of the top 20 in the city. Or ask people at the front desk about hidden gems outside of the tourist areas.
  7. Don’t pack anything you would be miserable if you lost. Everything is replaceable. Don’t let losing something spoil your trip. I’m a pretty easy going girl and packed 3 shirts and 2 pairs of pants. I bought insurance for my camera and brought several memory cards that I would switch out every few days. This way if my camera was stolen, I wouldn’t lose all my pictures. My friend Rach had her backpack stolen at the train station in Barcelona, and we were almost pick pocketed at the train station in Paris. Don’t leave important things in your jeans/jacket/shirt pockets or on the outside pockets of your backpack.
  8. If something doesn’t feel right, then go with your gut and get out of there.
  9. Locals appreciate when you make an effort to speak the native language. Learn key words like Hi, Bye, Thank-you, Please. There are a lot of great language apps that teach you the most common phrases.
  10. Sometimes if you are really really really really sick. It’s worth wasting a day being sick, rather than pushing yourself so hard only to make yourself sicker and then having to miss out on way more.
  11. Learn how to read a map. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones that can afford to use the data on your phone, you will probably have to rely on paper map to find your way around. I can’t even tell you the countless times I’ve “explored aimlessly” because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I’m going. TripAdvisor has this great app that loads the whole map onto your phone. You don’t have to use data to use the map and you can use the gps on your phone to figure out where you are.
  12. Learn to be easy going and flexible. On more than one occasion, we’ve missed our train, found out that the hostel didn’t have any rooms for us, walked around for hours because we were lost, had things stolen, have your credit cards not work, etc. The key for me was to try to keep things in perspective and remember how lucky I was to even have the chance to travel. So suck it up, and find a way to solve your problem.

 

Here are a few apps that were incredibly useful during my trip

Tripadvisor – You can download maps and use your gps to navigate around without using data. They also have a great list of must eat restaurants in every city.

Nettalk – Let’s you call north american land lines.

Whatsapp – a lot of my new travel friends had whatsapp and it was a great way to keep in touch and send pictures during our travels

 

In the next few postings, I’m going to go into a little bit more depth about the cities I visited, the hostels I stayed in, and tips I learned specific to the city.